I learned to drive outside of Denver, in Aurora, a sprawling centre-less suburb, with pretensions to be a city. My instructor was a man called Darius, a middle-aged African-American who’d lost the lower part of his left arm in a motorbike accident. He smoked endless menthol Kools, which he gave away freely, and which always made me feel as though my lungs were being filled with cold crystals of glass. Whenever his hand was occupied, he’d attach the cigarettes to a small wire clamp, a few centimetres beneath his elbow, hidden most of the time by the short sleeves of his shirts. He would direct me along the woods, houses and golf courses of Aurora, the endless predictable roads, and I felt a sense of achievement: that this was all I had ever wanted from America.
When I finally learned to drive in the United Kingdom– taught in Brighton by a brisk, patient but essentially featureless man whose name I no longer remember– I’d needed only two or three lessons before I went for the test. Darius had taught me well. Even now, his voice was never far away from me as I watched the traffic, the risks, the lunacy, the comedy through which I am supposed to find a path. ‘Now why,’ he would say whenever I made a mistake. ‘Would you even think of doing that?’
It was Darius who had told me that the secret to driving long distances. No one could stay focussed upon the road, it was impossible. ‘You’d just go crazy.’ Watch the scenery and you were asking for trouble. Instead, he advocated finding a fixed point in your mind, something you can dwell upon, move beyond but always return to. (Darius liked to compile all time line-ups of the Broncos). When I drove down to Mexico I tried it. Songs of The Fall. The films of Harry Dean Stanton. Jokes my father had told me. I hadn’t driven home for a couple of years, and it would take about four hours in all. I’d been given two days off work to make the trip, my manager’s cold, call-centre heart defrosted because he’d spent two years in the Territorial Army. But during that whole journey, I hardly thought of Mum and Dad at all. Mona was my fixed point.
I remembered the time we’d taken a trip to Liverpool, to stay with a friend at the university. We had slept in the single bed of her room in the residences, while the friend stayed with her boyfriend. I remembered a desk filled with succulent plants and cacti, the band posters, books on biochemistry. It occurred to me that this must have been the first time I stayed in the city which pushed me on a particular course, which had sent me outwards.
And I remembered a story Mona had told me at the time, about a family party she’d attended when she was in her teens. It was her grandmother’s birthday. A village hall had been hired not far from the old woman’s bungalow. Four generations of people had gathered, perhaps for the only time. There was a finger buffet, a few speeches and the reading of cards from those who couldn’t attend. Finally, everyone gathered upon rows of plastic chairs to face a projector screen. An uncle had found some old films in the grandmother’s loft. He’d had them developed and recorded onto video. They watched the woman, no more than twenty years old. She walked across the long, white sands of a Norfolk beach, rode a bike along a coastal pathway, fed carrots to a donkey over a steel gate. Self conscious and shy, swapping glances with the person behind the camera, presumably her husband, by then long dead. The woman had been transfixed, hypnotised. Mona would go on and on about how she’d been affected by those images. They were the reason she wanted to make films, so she said. But I didn’t believe her then, and I didn’t believe her now. As a first cause, it sounded too perfect, an easy explanation for such a complex impulse. To record, keep hold of things. To preserve what she saw.
I was still thinking about that when a water tower loomed by the side of the road. I glanced at it as I drove past. The chamber flared like a chalice from the central tower; the brick grey, blistered. After one, two seconds it was gone. As I glanced in the rear view window, trying to seek it out, an articulated lorry overtook me, tall white letters yelling down ‘Kroontax.’. I returned my gaze to the road, steadying the car in the wake of the draft. When I next checked the mirror, the water tower had vanished.
Words © Daniel Bennett